Renters' Forum

Breaking Your Lease but Not Your Credit Score

By Robert Griswold, Steven R. Kellman and James McKinley
Saturday, November 17, 2007

Q: My fiance and I need to break our lease. We signed a one-year lease in August, and since then, we've had nothing but problems. Less than two weeks after we moved in, someone broke into our car and stole our radio and damaged the dashboard. My downstairs neighbors gave us fleas, which were sprayed for, but they never cleaned up the cat feces for which they were evicted. Our new downstairs neighbors have been loud and kept us up at night, and I have asked them to keep it down several times. My upstairs neighbors have a habit of turning their music up loud, and when I knock on their door to ask them to turn it down, they don't answer and instead turn it up.

I have called and complained several times, and management has failed to do anything. We have had issues with mold on our windows and one window frame being broken, and we had to call maintenance to come fix it. There are also personal reasons. After we moved in, we found out I am expecting another child and am due in May. A small two-bedroom apartment for five of us isn't enough room. My fiance and I will be getting married this month, as well. Is there anything we can do to get out of this without it hurting our credit?

A: James McKinley, a lawyer for landlords, replies:

Since you and your fiance signed a lease, which is a contract, you are legally obligated to perform your obligations under the contract. You have listed many minor inconveniences people can experience when living in an apartment with many others in close proximity; however, you have not stated a valid legal reason to break the lease. In fact, it appears that your landlord has responded to some complaints about the neighbors and apartment conditions in a timely manner. Your landlord is not responsible for the criminal acts of third parties and has apparently performed his obligations under the contract. It appears that the real reason you want to move is to rent a bigger apartment.

Under the law in most jurisdictions, if you and your fiance were to break the lease, you both would be responsible for the rent until the lease expires or the landlord finds a new tenant, whichever comes first. If you fail to pay the rent, your landlord could pursue a judgment through small-claims court or collections through a collection agency, either of which would negatively affect your credit. Your best option would be to negotiate an early termination of the lease with the landlord. Many landlords have a policy regarding early termination that involves a fee to cover the costs of lost rent, advertising and cleaning.

Steven Kellman, a lawyer for tenants, replies:

Leases, like some rules, seem like a good idea at some point, but there's often someone just waiting to break one of them. Of course, rules or leases are better broken when you have a good reason. I would call what you have endured a major disruption to your lives. You suffered vandalism (lack of security), insect infestation, broken windows and mold (lack of maintenance), and excessive noise from neighbors (lack of enforcing rental agreements). These are not minor inconveniences. Anyone dealing with these things routinely would be understandably upset and ready to move out. You are not prisoners and may move if it is not livable there. The law allows you, under certain conditions rendering the unit significantly uninhabitable, to vacate and be relieved of the obligation to pay further rent. In this situation, and under certain conditions, the lease could be broken with no penalty, and no minimum notice would be needed.

But if you think you need to move because you simply need a bigger place, then your termination of the lease is without legal grounds, and you could be responsible for lost rent and advertising costs. You can protect your credit simply by arranging an agreed-upon move-out date with the landlord and cooperating with the re-renting process. Your liability could then be kept to a minimum and your credit left intact. Remember to seek legal counsel before breaking any lease.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold and San Diego lawyers Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants Legal Center, and James McKinley, member of the Moffitt & Associates law firm, which represents landlords. E-mail your questions to Griswold Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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